The French are the inventors of the fairy tale: Charles Perrault founded the genre in the 17th century with Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Cinderella—and, of course, The Sleeping Beauty. French auteur Catherine Breillat continues the tradition by reinventing these stories in film. Whether fairy tales cooperate when translated to cinema is another matter, as these fables are both terrifically brief in length and unabashedly moralistic in content. Yet, fairy tales are above all else about the details, endless and exquisite, included for no purpose other than a lust for romance and intrigue. Women braid their hair with ribbons of silver and gold, styles of such elegance that would take hours to enact in the modern world, but are givens in mythic realms. Film might therefore be the perfect medium for the reimagining of the fairy tale. Where else could we delight in all of these details simultaneously? Images of those well-loved tales are half-remembered from childhood, equally vivid and fuzzy, so ingrained in our collective unconscious it would be difficult to watch a movie like Breillat’s without some hint of recognition, as if from a just-forgotten dream.
Breillat’s version of Sleeping Beauty, another of the director’s characteristic explorations of female sexuality, entertains our well-warranted fears about growing up and waking up, leaving dreamland behind forever. The film begins with the birth of a baby, the Princess Anastasia, an unlucky newborn immediately cursed by a sinister old fairy named Carabosse. Three prettier, younger fairies were too busy sunning themselves in a nearby stream to arrive to the birthing on time, so when they finally do turn up, they must reverse Carabosse’s malicious spell. (Is she just bitter about being the oldest fairy in town?) The flighty pixies remedy things modestly, altering the spell so the princess will not die from her curse, but rather fall deeply asleep for 100 years and reawaken at the age of 16. Anastasia will not only slumber uninterrupted, but will also be awarded a companionable dream life, a means of escape from a century of dull drowsing. To lie helplessly imprisoned, albeit with no responsibilities, inside your own imagination: is this the best or worst of fates?
Six years later Anastasia is alive and well, a spirited Breillat heroine reprimanded for scaling trees and roughhousing like a boy. “I hate wearing dresses,” she declares. “What’s the point of being a princess if I can’t do what I want?” Like Marie-Catherine, heroine of Breillat’s last fairy-tale-inspired picture, 2009’s Bluebeard, Anastasia is in charge of her own destiny. Maybe. She might self-rule with all the confidence of a miniature despot, but soon the curse returns to spirit her away. As in all fairy tales, characters must do what they can with circumstances both deliciously absurd and unalterable.
Now dwelling only in her dream life, the princess rebels against all customary forms of priss and decorum previously adhered to—she is at last able to partake of rowdy adventures. After happening across an ideal family with whom to cozy up (and who are even willing to dress her like a boy), she falls in love with Peter, her nominal older brother. Here the story takes a peculiar turn and mutates into a mishmash of Perrault’s writing and Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Snow Queen. Peter’s mother mentions this queen in a bedtime story, and while Anastasia fears and despises the elusive lady at once, Peter is easily seduced. “Shards of ice pierce his heart” when he glimpses the lovely queen out the window through flakes of a snowstorm. Plainly speaking, he has now reached that awkward age in adolescence wherein young boys turn sour and vicious. Anastasia studies the word “puberty” in her dictionary, but to no avail; Peter has run away with the Snow Queen, who informs him coldly “your childhood is behind you now.” Anastasia departs to follow Peter, hoping to bring him back. But there is no returning from adulthood.
The first hour of Sleeping Beauty is the film’s best, as the little girl wanders through snippets of enchanted countryside in search of her love. She boards an empty train that looks like it’s just arrived from Wonderland, then steps off at a town whose only inhabitants are a midget and some carefully positioned mannequins meant to ward off intruders. She greets two albinos who belong to some ambiguous royalty and dines on luxurious pastries in their decadent palace. She is threatened by a frightening man whose skin is covered with boils and beats him at a game of bowling (played with human bones instead of pins), before taunting defiantly, “You don’t even exist!” In Breillat’s world, triumph in one’s own imagination, set against one’s inner demons, is more admirable than any real-life defeat.
In one of the film’s most striking images, Anastasia dons an enormous fur hat and rides a doe across an icy landscape, as northern lights sparkle in the sky behind her. She is lucky to have this extended girlhood; most children wish only to grow up fast and can’t appreciate such carefree days. “Time seems endless to you because you’re so young,” Anastasia is told. “You’ll soon find out how fast it goes by.”
The Sleeping Beauty has to wake up sometime—and evidently contemporary times are but 100 years distant from an ancient, vague era of magic, for Anastasia awakens in the modern world. In Perrault’s original tale, the fairies cast a spell upon everyone in Sleeping Beauty’s kingdom, so they can sleep alongside their princess and spare her from waking up alone. But in this case, no such precautions are taken. She never does find Peter, but his great-grandson Johan is alive and he is eager to become the 16-year-old’s first lover (male characters are traditionally less interesting in Breillat films, and this one is no exception). She has slept so long, her dress is rendered “vintage,” and her outdated whalebone corset takes forever to unbutton. Johan has a TV, while she has an enormous fireplace and old-fashioned bed in which she languishes all day. There is some overlap between the modern and fairy tale world—Peter’s family line apparently exists in both—and yet the modern world no longer allows for fairy-tales. Johan might possess the dapper air of prince charming, but his satisfaction lies only in empty and hostile sexual conquests; he is a wolf in nobleman’s clothing.
Anastasia is ever the feminist, declaring she will not waste her youth by having Johan’s baby. But then in her youth, she wished to be a boy and run wild through the fields; she now longs only to advance her feminine wiles. Suddenly she has cut her flowing hair and donned a more progressive ensemble—and she is going to have a baby, after all. “I was all alone in your world,” Anastasia tells Johan resentfully. She was confident and comfortable in her fantasies, but out here the loss of virginity is cruel and painful. When we see, at last, her black tights ripped and full of holes, the loss of innocence is palpable. Johan has stolen her dream life—just as the young Peter was stripped of his own by the Snow Queen, a creature who could be a substitute for some flighty, teenaged seductress. In several of the earliest Sleeping Beauty versions, the prince rapes the princess while she sleeps (fairy tales are much, much darker than Disney would lead us to believe) and she awakens already with child. Such violence is hinted at in Breillat’s adaptation, as Anastasia is all but coerced into her deflowering.
Fragments of Sleeping Beauty are intermittingly lovely, but the film’s separate parts do not fit together flawlessly. Anastasia’s exploits in adulthood, in particular, grow sloppy and heavy-handed. Breillat has an issue with endings, it seems—in many of her movies, she can’t quite seem to conclude things without a sudden sense of disconnection. She is as much a philosopher as a filmmaker, so perhaps these conclusions are meant to mimic life itself, in which nothing is ever finished or satisfactory. The film stands, ultimately, as a rather melancholic celebration of feminism. The female character is the strong one, a girl with conviction and passion; the “prince” is callow and boyish, eager for all the wrong reasons. Fairy tales so often deal with damsels in distress, a princess who waits sleeping for a man to kiss and save her—but who would the prince be without the Sleeping Beauty to rescue? Just another man. Fairy tales would later deal with women figures more respectfully; the best-known version of Beauty and the Beast, for one, presents a girl who saves a man disguised as a beast, for she alone is able to look past his hideous appearance and fall in love with his kind nature. Beauty is the girl who inspires this Beast to stay alive, even in his ugliest, most miserable state. But none too surprisingly, that story was brought to us by a woman, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. It’s appropriate, then, that Breillat has confirmed she will complete her fairy-tale trilogy with Beauty and the Beast.
Breillat’s foray into fairy tale territory brings to mind an old New Yorker piece, “The Hobbit Habit,” wherein Anthony Lane assumes that boys and girls experience the process of growing up quite differently: boys pour over Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, while girls are habitually less fond of the series. Admittedly, young girls play dress up in their mother’s clothes and heels, amuse themselves with tiny kitchen sets. And boys feel entitled to stay boys, while girls are forced to grow up fast in lieu of caring for their babies. But Lane notes (rather carelessly) that females leave their girlhoods behind without a second glance, gliding happily and swiftly into womanhood; while boys look longingly over their shoulders as if at Tolkien’s safe, green Shire, ever reluctant to depart the allure and comfort of childhood. I suspect Breillat, like myself, would dispute these claims: Just because girls grow up with a bit more dignity, a little less kicking and screaming, does not mean we like it any better.